Susan Hiller (1940–2019)

Susan Hiller in 2006. Photo: Nanda Lanfranco.

IN SUSAN HILLER’S EARLY VIDEO INSTALLATION An Entertainment, 1990, scaled-up images and the amplified sound of Punch and Judy performances transform popular children’s entertainment into a terrifying spectacle. Aspects of our collective culture considered unworthy of serious attention—in this case, puppet shows she watched with her young son—repeatedly formed the starting point for a wide range of innovative artworks produced over the artist’s remarkably productive five-decade career.

Susan’s art often focused on the subconscious and the paranormal. Early experiments with automatic writing and her work Dream Mapping, 1974, were followed by monumental installations such as Psi Girls, 1999, an orchestrated sound and video installation of telekinetic actions, and Witness, 2000, an elaborate arrangement of hanging speakers, emitting oral testimony of alien and UFO sightings.

Spoken and written language appeared consistently throughout Susan’s work, and she was the author, coauthor, and editor of several books. German street signs containing the prefix Juden, or Jew, were painstakingly researched for The J Street Project, 2002–05, while recordings of endangered or extinct languages were accompanied by projections of the sound waves they produced in The Last Silent Movie, 2007–08.

Artifacts were similarly accumulated. Postcards entitled “Rough Sea,” from locations around the British coastline, are arranged in fourteen panels in Dedicated to the Unknown Artists, 1972–76, and numerous museum boxes filled with themed objects feature in the installation From the Freud Museum, 1991–96.

“I don’t make singularities,” Susan told The Observer in 2011. “I work in series. It’s a political commitment. There’s a non-hierarchical principle of organization in the work. I combine a Minimalist aesthetic with a Surrealist sensibility.”

Her postgraduate studies in photography and film, archaeology, linguistics, and anthropology, as well as the years in the 1960s she spent traveling and living in different parts of the world with her partner, the writer David Coxhead, no doubt contributed to the very particular approach of this fiercely intelligent and endlessly curious artist. Susan was a youthful seventy-eight when she died this January. Though women of her generation struggled to achieve visibility and respect in their careers, her work featured regularly in international exhibitions alongside much younger artists in recent decades, and known and loved pieces from across the span of Susan’s life were consistently visible in galleries and museums. For those fortunate enough to have known her, we will fondly remember her insight, integrity, irony, and generosity. Susan will be very much missed, but her work will live on.

Ann Gallagher is director of collections, British art at Tate, and was curator of “Susan Hiller,” a retrospective exhibition held at Tate Britain in 2011.